The Centre debate tackles online hate

Michelle Bitran, The Canadian Jewish News

section 13 event, The Centre for israel and Jewish Affairs

TORONTO — A controversial section of the Canadian Human Rights Act that covers hate speech on the Internet was up for debate at a town hall in Toronto last week, with a human rights lawyer arguing for its retention and a civil libertarian calling for its repeal.

The Jan. 10 debate on Section 13 of the act, held at the University of Toronto’s George Ignatieff Theatre, was intended to be the first in a series of similar events on issues of the day to be organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

Section 13 outlaws hate speech spread via the Internet or by phone. Complaints about hate speech that fall under this category can be brought to the Canadian Human Rights Commission and may end up before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

Constitutional scholar Richard Moon recommended the repeal of Section 13 in 2008, and there’s currently a private member’s bill in Parliament calling for its repeal that’s expected to come to a vote in the spring.

Supporters of Section 13 see it as an effective tool in fighting hate speech, but those who seek its repeal consider it a limit on free speech and an unnecessary addition to the law, given the provisions against advocating genocide and the public incitement of hatred that are already a part of the Criminal Code.

Arguing for its retention at the CIJA event was human rights lawyer Richard Warman, who has been a successful complainant in 15 Internet hate cases since 2001, when Section 13 was amended to clearly include online messages.

Arguing for the section’s repeal was Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a former president of the Law Commission of Canada.

Well-known criminal lawyer Edward Prutschi moderated the debate.

“The Internet is not the Wild West in Canada,’” said Warman, adding that people can and should be held accountable for hateful material they post online.

He argued that “it is the hate propaganda that leads to the acting,” so fighting hate speech online is part of fighting it off line as well.

Warman also argued that for the Criminal Code to be an effective tool in combating hate speech on its own, significant additional resources are needed. Largely because those resources aren’t in place and because there is “an institutional reluctance to lay these kinds of charges,” he said, Section 13 is both necessary and effective.

In contrast, Des Rosiers argued that pursuing hate speech through Section 13 is a misallocation of resources and can chill free speech.

“There will never be enough resources to go after everything that is discriminatory,” she said. “Going after acts may be a better investment.”

She added that although controlling speech was not the intention of the section, it seems to have had that effect. “It is dangerous in any society to leave the government with the task of deciding which points of view can be expressed and in which way,” she said.

Des Rosiers suggested that a better way to fight hate speech is with condemnation. “The response to bad speech is stronger speech, better speech and more speech, not less,” she said.

During a question-and-answer session, the Jewish Defence League’s national director, Meir Weinstein, challenged Warman about a section on Warman’s website regarding a short film called Fitna, which Warman describes as “a 16-minute long video by Dutch far-right, xenophobic politician Geert Wilders that seeks to demonize the Muslim community using classic hate propaganda techniques.”

Weinstein also took issue with a link to another website that, among other topics, includes strongly anti-Israel views, including a reference to “Israeli apartheid.”

Warman stood by his assessment of Fitna as being criminal hate propaganda against Muslims, adding that he fights hate speech directed at any community.

He also noted that his site states that he doesn’t necessarily endorse the viewpoints presented on linked websites, and that he personally finds the claim that Israel is an apartheid state to be “bogus.”

CIJA chair, David Koschitzky, told The CJN that CIJA will be launching a web seminar series in February about controversial issues related to Judaism and Israel. The first topic in the series, titled Unity not Uniformity, will deal with religious pluralism and the role of women in Israel.

“Our feeling is that to be as inclusive as possible, we have to educate people as to how many different points of view there are,” Koschitzky said. “In spite of these diverse opinions, we are unified.”

To sign up for the free web seminars, e-mail

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